The Red House audiobook: Listen carefully
The Red House by Mark Haddon, narrated by Nathaniel Parker, out now in audiobook (AudioGO, £17.19)
The Phantom by Jo Nesbø, narrated by Sean Barrett, out now in audiobook (Isis, £24.09)
Mark Haddon’s The Red House is available from Amazon for £7.64 in hardback. Alternatively, for £17.19 – almost a tenner more – you can download a 12-hour recording of the actor Nathaniel Parker reading it from the bookseller’s sister site, Audible.com.
There are of course other bookshops (still), and other ways of acquiring what we used to think of as ‘speaking books’. Back in the days of cassettes, the concept only really made sense for the visually impaired, but audiobooks are now big business.
Blame Stephen Fry, whose 30 hours-plus Potter marathons, costing up to – gasp – £75, proved almost as addictive as the books themselves, not least because JK’s stories are ideally suited to the medium: they move fairly quickly, but with plenty of explanation, and there is never any doubt about who is the focus.
Strong narrative voices translate well to audio. Family favourites include Martin Jarvis doing Just William, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Other recent finds are Hugh Dickson reading Bleak House and Caitlin Moran on How to Be A Woman. Car journeys fly by. Kids listen to their iPods all day. They really are a decent alternative to the TV at night, or to the radio while cooking the dinner. They even work on a run.
But what happens when the text is very different? The Red House constantly changes point of view, often two or three times on the same page. There’s no hero, no central character, just eight individuals with a spectrum of hang-ups, secrets and motivations. Reading or listening to Haddon’s prose demands full attention: if you don’t focus you’ll get hopelessly lost. But the reward is there if you stick with it.
Like movie adaptations, audiobooks come with extra baggage. I gave up on The Time Traveller’s Wife, not because of the ludicrous premise – a man who flits back and forth in time without clothes – but because the American accents sounded weirdly phoney.
So when I came to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, I wondered if voiceover expert Saul Reichlin would risk a Swedish accent. Muppet chef, anyone? Then I found myself liking Blomkvist less than I had when I read the novels; he was more pompous. As for Berger, did Reichlin cross his legs to read her dialogue, or what?
Pace counts. Three-and-a-half hours in to The Girl Who Played with Fire I realised this was still the preamble. My head was awash with Swedish names that were all starting to sound very similar and it occurred to me that I could have re-watched Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring in that time. If this had been a book, I might have skim-read up to this point.
I fancied I would get something different from current prince of Scandi-noir Jo Nesbø. The Phantom, his latest Harry Hole thriller, has an odd beginning that works better in audiobook: the first section is narrated by a female rat as it encounters the dying body of a drug addict.
That got my attention, but The Phantom proved as demanding as The Red House. Nesbø skips between a pilot, a junkie, Harry himself and the rat. And it’s bleak. Listen to it on the beach, somewhere sunny enough to remind you that you’re not stuck in Oslo in the rain.
And another thing…
A Visit from the Goon Squad author Jennifer Egan last week tweeted her latest story, the 8,500-word Black Box, in 140-character chunks via @NYerFiction. A new literary medium or just plain silliness? Tweet me your thoughts: @thomasquinn1000
For the Kindle - and free!
The Story of Shackleton's 1914-1917 Expedition by Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1919)
Shackleton’s South, in which he describes the infamous ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, with the subsequent loss of Endurance, makes for gripping reading. It is not so much what Shackleton puts on paper as what he leaves out that works so well – his calm, scientific description of a voyage where everything that could go wrong did has the reader on the edge of their seat and in no doubt of the epic calamity that the voyage was, as well as the incredible bravery and bloody-minded refusal of Shackleton to give up. It’s British bulldog spirit at its best. www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5199